Why Recycling Is Important
The information below outlines the importance of recycling and how participating in recycling programs in Pinellas County assists the Pinellas County Department of Solid Waste with its vision of zero waste to landfill by 2050.
Recycling is an EPA-recommended Waste Management Strategy
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Waste Management Hierarchy recommends managing waste from the most preferred to least preferred options in the following order: the reduction of waste generated; reuse of resources; recycling; creating electricity via waste-to-energy; and landfilling as a last resort.
- The Department of Solid Waste follows EPA’s hierarchy; it operates an integrated solid waste management system with programs for waste reduction, reuse, recycling, energy recovery, and disposal.
- While the County’s waste-to-energy process provides a beneficial use for garbage by reducing its volume and creating electricity, it is considered “energy recovery,” not “recycling.” According to the hierarchy, recycling is preferred over energy recovery because it saves natural resources by avoiding the depletion of virgin materials.
Recycling Saves Natural Resources
- The greatest environmental benefit of recycling is conservation of natural resources, such as energy. Recycling also prevents pollution that is generated when a raw material is used to make a new product. For example:
- Recycling glass takes 30% less energy than producing glass from raw materials. Glass is used to make fiberglass and glass containers. Glass never wears out and can be recycled infinitely. In the County’s Waste-to-Energy Facility (WTE Facility), glass does not convert to energy and is landfilled in the ash that remains from the combustion of garbage.
- Recycling aluminum cans saves 95% of the energy that is needed to make aluminum from its virgin source. Aluminum cans are 100% recyclable and there is no limit to how many times they can be recycled. Around 75% of the aluminum made is still in circulation.
- The U.S. recycling rate for mixed paper has met or exceeded 63% since 2009. Recycled mixed paper can be recycled 5 to 7 times to make new paper products.
- The U.S. recycling rate for cardboard has exceeded 82% since 2009. In 2021, the recycling rate for cardboard was 91.4%.
- Recycling high-density polyethylene or HDPE bottles and jugs (examples of this plastic are milk, water, and laundry detergent bottles & jugs) reduces total energy consumption by 88% compared to making the items out of virgin materials.
- Recycling polyethylene terephthalate or PET plastic bottles (examples of this plastic are soft drink bottles, water bottles, and peanut butter jars) reduces total energy consumption by 79% compared to making this plastic out of virgin materials. Recycled PET can be used to make fiber for clothing & carpets, food and non-food bottles, take-out containers, and fill for furnishings.
Recycling Commodity Markets are Mostly Domestic
- China’s January 2018 National Sword policy grew domestic (North American) recycling markets and infrastructure investment, leading to a major shift in processors connecting to domestic destinations for recycled materials. Those domestic markets have since grown steadily (Waste Dive, August 2022).
- Northeast Recycling Council’s (NERC’s) list cites 28 new recycled paper mill projects since 2018; 17 of which have been completed, for a total of 8 million tons per year of increased capacity for cardboard and mixed paper. On that list is:
- Celadon’s planned construction of a new paper manufacturing plant in Tampa, Florida. According to a Port Tampa news release, the plant “will have significant economic and sustainability benefits generating up to 20,000 export containers per year, creating approximately 100 jobs and involving a capital investment of $160 million during Phase One of the project. The facility will receive and process mixed paper, corrugated cardboard, and plastic products sourced in Florida to produce paper fiber sheets for export to Asia.”
- Strategic Materials, a glass processor located in Sarasota, Florida, accepts glass collected in local (including Pinellas County) recycling programs and processed at regional Materials Recovery Facilities. Strategic Materials cleans the glass, then sends it to southeastern U.S. manufacturers to turn the material into new products, such as fiberglass and glass containers.
- Brands and retailers are leading the charge toward more recycled content in products with new or expanded sustainability commitments. Their actions are often driven by consumers’ desire for more recycled content in packaging as well as mandates in certain states, such as in Washington and Connecticut who passed recycled content laws.
Recycling Reduces Greenhouse Gas Emissions
- Gases that trap heat in the atmosphere are called greenhouse gases (GHGs). The GHGs created from human activities have been the most significant driver of observed climate change since the mid-1900s. Three notable GHGs include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O).
- Fossil fuels are non-renewable resources found in the Earth’s crust. Burning fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil, and natural gas) creates energy and large amounts of CO2. The best way to reduce CO2 emissions is to reduce fossil fuel consumption.
- Nearly every aspect of our everyday lives (the things we do and buy) rely on fossil fuels and therefore generate CO2. In 2020, CO2 emitted by sector in the United States are transportation (33%), electric power (31%), industry (16%), residential & commercial (12%), and other/non-fossil fuel combustion (8%).
- The best way to reduce GHGs is to reduce consumption and the amount of waste generated. For example, opting for less-packaged goods, using durable and reusable products over single-use products, and shopping secondhand are great ways to reduce the GHGs emitted during the manufacturing, transportation, and disposal of new materials.
- Following waste reduction and reuse, the EPA’s Waste Management Hierarchy recommends that the next best way to manage materials is to recycle or compost them. Recycling is the process of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products. Rather than having to manufacture items from virgin materials, recycling uses materials already in circulation to make new products while keeping them out of the County’s WTE Facility and landfill.
- Imagine purchasing a plastic water bottle from the grocery store today. How was that water bottle created? How did it get to you? What will you do with it after it’s no longer of use to you? Each step of the process – from the extraction of oil to create the plastic, the transportation of those materials by gasoline-powered planes, ships, and vehicles, the energy that the manufacturing process entails, and its end-of-life fate – will determine how many GHGs are emitted into the atmosphere.
- The study of the resources needed to create, use then dispose of this water bottle is called a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). LCAs are different for every material created – even the same types of materials that are created in different parts of the country. If we were to opt to refill a reusable container, we would be conserving the GHGs emitted throughout the plastic water bottle’s short life.
- Recycling can help conserve GHGs at a product’s end-of-life by removing the need to extract raw materials like fossil fuels to create new products, whether those new products are another water bottle or a different type of plastic product.
Recycling is Critical to Reach the Vision of Zero Waste to Landfill by 2050
- The County recognizes the need to preserve its landfill, maximize its WTE capacity, and maximize recycling and waste reduction efforts. In 2020, the County released its 30-year Solid Waste Master Plan (Master Plan), which was adopted by the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners. The Master Plan includes 28 strategies that best fit the vision of zero waste to landfill by 2050.
- To make this vision reality, collaboration with our partners is essential to minimize how much waste is generated, maximize how much is recycled, maximize recovery, and responsibly manager what is left over.
Recycling Saves Local Disposal Capacity
- According to the County’s 2021-22 Waste Composition Study, 17.6% of incoming garbage at the SWDC are materials capable of being recycled through existing recycling programs. These items include paper, cardboard, and plastic, glass, and metal containers.
- In 2021, according to Pinellas County’s Solid Waste Management Report submitted to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection:
- 2.5 million tons of garbage was generated
- 1.2 million tons was recycled
- 1.3 million tons was disposed of at the Pinellas County Solid Waste Disposal Complex (845,000 tons was disposed of at the WTE Facility)
- Based on the County’s projected population growth and increased waste generation:
- The County’s WTE Facility will reach operating capacity in 2026 (see page 22 of Master Plan), which means that more garbage will need to be landfilled without the added benefit of the WTE’s volume reduction.
- The County’s landfill has just 80 years of remaining life. If residents were to stop recycling today, the landfill would be full and out of service within 60 years.
- As Florida’s most densely populated county, Pinellas County lacks the space to build another landfill. Once the landfill is out of service, the County will need to ship waste out of county, which will be expensive due to disposal fees and loading and transportation costs.
- Recycling reduces the burden on the County’s Solid Waste Disposal Complex. Removing items that can be recycled from the waste stream creates needed capacity in the WTE Facility.
Recycling is Supported by the Municipalities
- As proposed by the Solid Waste Technical Management Committee, all Pinellas County municipalities agreed to collect a standardized list of single-stream program recyclables in their recycling collection programs.
- All 24 Pinellas County municipalities have recycling collection programs that include this standardized list of items (i.e., paper, cardboard and glass, metal, and plastic containers).
Recycling is Supported by the County
The Department of Solid Waste supports recycling through the following programs:
- Municipal Recycling Grant
- A $500,000 municipal recycling grant program distributed on a per capita basis annually to support recycling.
- Public Education
- The Recycle Guide is distributed to residents via the Tampa Bay Times newspaper and to all public and charter schools. It is available online throughout the year.
- The Where Does It Go? Search Tool (WDIG) is a searchable database that connects users to the right donation centers, recycling facilities, and online takeback programs. WDIG, which is available in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese, offers guidance and local resources for homes and businesses for reuse, recycling, and disposal.
- Tours & Presentations – Department of Solid Waste staff provide virtual and in-person presentations to residents about the importance of recycling to Pinellas County and how to recycle properly.
- Recycle Across America
- To help drive local consistency in labels for recycling collection containers, the County holds a license agreement for label artwork and a contract with a printing vendor. The label artwork and printing vendor are available to municipalities and Pinellas County Schools.
Recycling Supports Regional Partnerships
- Recycling supports the initiatives of regional partnership. Recycling programs across Tampa Bay accept similar materials and face similar issues, such as contamination. The Tampa Bay Recycles campaign (English and Spanish) is as a partnership between Pinellas County, Hillsborough County, the City of St. Petersburg, and the City of Tampa. The educational campaign focuses on educating what does not belong in recycling bins. The Reduce Your Use Tampa Bay campaign encourages waste reduction through action and is supported by the same regional partners, plus Keep Pinellas Beautiful and Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful.
- Pinellas County administers Pinellas Partners in Recycling (PPR),which was created as a recycling advisory group to the Solid Waste Technical Management Committee. Each of the 24 municipalities have implemented curbside recycling collection programs in part due to PPR and the Department of Solid Waste’s support. Today, PPR is an advisory and networking group focused on recycling, waste reduction, and managing garbage as a resource. The group meets bi-monthly and forms Work Groups to support and advance the group’s objectives, like recycling contract technical assistance.
Recycling is Supported by the State Government
- In 2008, the Florida Legislature set a recycling goal of 75% by 2020 for Florida counties. The state did not meet this goal. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection will be developing a new state recycling goal and measurement framework. The Department of Solid Waste is responsible to report Pinellas County’s recycling rate annually, including the tons recycled by each municipality. As of 2021, Pinellas County’s traditional recycling rate is 49%.
Recycling is Supported by the Federal Government
Recycling Service is Expected by Voting Citizens and by Visitors
- The 2020 Residential Recycling Awareness Survey found that 86% of single-family households in Pinellas County use their curbside recycling program. Of the population that does not recycle curbside, 9% reported that they recycle at a drop-off center and only 7% of households reported that cost of recycling service was a deterrent.
- Single-family residents that do recycle curbside are motivated to do so because recycling protects the earth (55%), it’s the right thing to do (18%), and it reduces landfill waste (7%).
- The 2020 Residential Recycling Awareness Survey also found that 64% of multifamily properties have recycling service and 88% of the residents that do not currently have recycling service would recycle at their multifamily residence if it was made available to them. 92% of the multifamily residents living at the properties that have recycling service participate in their program. Multifamily residents that recycle do so because it protects the earth (57%), it’s the right thing to do (17%), and it reduces landfill waste (6%).
- The state of Florida has 411 incorporated municipalities distributed across 67 counties. According to Waste Dive who tracks where recycling programs have stopped in the USA, since 2019, less than 3% of Florida communities have stopped recycling programs.
- Two-thirds of Pinellas County residents reside in incorporated areas that provide their own recycling collection; residents are often referred to their municipal government for recycling information. Despite this, the Department of Solid Waste’s recycling-related website hits accounted for 8.4% of total department website traffic in 2021 (approximately 31,400 out of 372,000 hits).
- From October 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021, the Department of Solid Waste answered nearly 500 inquires related to single-stream recycling and proper disposal received via a publicly-promoted email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) in addition to phone calls and live chats.
- The Department of Solid Waste created a Google Map in October 2021 that shows the locations of all countywide recycling drop-off centers. As of October 2022, the map has over 195,000 views.
Recycling Creates a Culture of Participatory Sustainability
- “Participatory Sustainability” is the idea that sustainability cannot be achieved through top-down government policy or economic activity. Sustainability requires the participation of all people and all parts of society.
- Recycling increases community support for other environmental initiatives.
- Recycling increases overall quality of life.
Recycling Has a Cost
- Recycling is not free. Just as there is a cost to waste-to-energy and landfilling, there is cost to operating recycling programs. Recycling commodity markets fluctuate and cannot be expected to cover recycling program operational costs.
As demonstrated above, there are societal and environmental drivers to consider when evaluating a community’s goals for its recycling program.
- FAQ about recycling and benefits to the environment https://www.epa.gov/recycle/frequent-questions-recycling
- Data about recycling https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/advancing-sustainable-materials-management
- Video about PET recycling process https://napcor.com/recycling/
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